Thoughts on ear plugs

I presume (hope) most BMW pilots would as soon don a beanie helmet for a brisk zip down a twisty road as ride without earplugs.

Actually, we wear serious helmets and earplugs for the same two reasons: protection and comfort.
If you don’t regard earplugs as necessary as a good helmet, listen up while you still can.
Though your pride and joy purrs instead of barks and you always wear a “quiet” helmet, you are still endangering your hearing if you ride without earplugs. The culprit is wind noise.
Ever stop for a break and find yourself and some of your companions speaking rather loudly? You are suffering some temporary hearing loss. In time your hearing will mostly come back. But not completely.
As a musician who has definitely lost some of his hearing (shotguns are partly to blame, loud music even more so, and then there is age) I’m doing everything I can to preserve what I have left.
So should you.

There is another good reason to wear earplugs: fatigue.
Simply put, noise tires you out. If you want to ride more hours and miles in a day, wear earplugs. You will go longer and farther before you are beat.
Martin Hobbs (our BMWMOA ambassador) says: “if you want to ride further wear ear plugs.” noise is very fatiguing.
Ever tried using a power saw with out ear plugs? One other thing, the bike runs much better when you wear ear plugs.
A third reason to wear earplugs is simply to get more pleasure out of the ride. The famous K-bike whine, the clunk of the hard luggage when I hit the smallest bump, as well as some other small and unimportant noises just disappear with earplugs.
I can still hear sirens of emergency vehicles (none pulling me over yet, thank you God) but riding is just a more serene and, I believe, no more dangerous experience wearing earplugs.
OK, I’ve more than once ridden at highway speeds for a few miles and been shocked when I glanced down to find my tach at 5500 because I was still in 4th gear. No harm done except for fuel economy.
I’ve been using a variety of “disposable” earplugs for years. Some of the irritating to  the ear and not too effective models are still on the market. Avoid anything that looks like a foam cylinder. I’ve also used three or four brands of earplugs that are comfortable, very effective when properly installed, and seemingly identical except for colour
They all look like bullets with a rounded nose at the front and a flange at the back. Prices range from about 30 cents to a buck a pair. (If a model you like comes with a cord, simply snip off the cord at the base of the plug and discard the cord, which can be a pain under a helmet.).

Inserting “disposable” earplugs is not as simple as dirt. If you are quite expert at it, thank you, ignore this paragraph. If you get it right every time, please pass on your tips.
I’ve seen enough riders inserting earplugs in ways that virtually guarantee they will be ineffective to pass on these suggestions:
1. Moisten an earplug with your mouth. This is lubrication to insure it goes all the way in instead of bunching up. (Disposable earplugs are reusable up to a point. If the thought of putting that dirty earplug in your mouth makes you gag, either break out a new pair or close your eyes.)
2. Roll the moistened earplug between your thumb and index finger until it is really compact.'
3. Reach over the top of your head with the opposite hand and lift the top of your ear to enlarge and  straighten the ear canal. Insert the plug as far as it will go and hold your index finger over the plug to keep it in position, then release the top of your ear.
4. How long you have to keep your finger on that earplug so it completely expands and will stay in place is one of the real drawbacks of these otherwise fine products. At room temperature, the time is around 15 seconds. Release your index finger too soon and the earplug will ooze its way out. An earplug from your tank bag when the temperature is just above freezing may require 30 seconds or even longer to fully expand. The real problem though is warm temperatures. The plug will expand before it is fully inserted. If you are lucky, you will notice this before you put on the helmet. If you are unlucky, you will notice this after you have not only put on your helmet but also pulled out on the highway. Either way, you have to start over, preferably with different earplugs.
5. Even perfectly inserted earplugs are easily dislodged, especially by the act of  putting on your helmet.

Pull out forcefully on the chinstraps to ease the helmet past your ears. Last summer I spent a few days riding with Doug Prentiss. When we were ready to go after a break, I noticed he had his earplugs inserted in a fraction of the time it took me. How do you do that? Turns out, Doug P. has very curvaceous ear canals and the above procedure never worked for him. So he bought a pair of silicone earplugs custom fit to his ears. They insert easily and quickly no matter the  temperature.
A few days later at the Boise, Idaho RA rally, it didn’t take me too long to decide to spend the $55 US for a pair of custom silicone earplugs from a vendor. (You select the colour from many, opting either for discreet or highly visible. For me, hot pink in case I dropped one seemed advisable.)
The guy examined my ears then inserted the silicon and told me to walk around for a half hour while the silicone set. He then removed the earplugs, apparently coated them with something, and I picked them up the next day.
My first concern was that I wouldn’t be able to tell the right one from the left. While there is a very small hole in the right one, they are so different in shape there has never been any question.
Exactly how you insert them is another matter and there is a learning curve here. It probably took me 20 tries before I got it right the first try every time. You get them lined up right, push them in and when it feels and sounds right, give a very slight downward twist. Like the disposable kind, they come out in an instant.

I find these custom plugs as comfortable as the best “disposable” ones. (If I think about it, I can tell they are inserted by the feel, but I can ignore the feeling for hours on end.)
The noise reduction is at least as good and possibly slightly better than the disposable kind.
Finally, there is no question whether you have  inserted the plugs properly, and they don’t dislodge easily. When they get dirty, wash them with soap and water.
While they are supposed to last 3 years, I suspect they will last much longer if you are not wearing them 8 hours a day on a noisy job. Time will tell. Until then, loss is the major consideration.
Have one place at home and no more than two places for bike travel where the container and plugs must be.
In short, I think this was money well spent. I use these new earplugs not only for riding but also cutting wood with a chainsaw and even mowing the lawn. If you have few problems with good disposable earplugs, they are certainly a good solution to very real problems. Custom silicone earplugs are something to consider if you find yourself too often cursing the disposable kind.
I would think a phone call to any hearing add in the yellow pages would send you in the right direction for finding a local source for this kind of earplug.

Doug Sonju
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